Our guest blogger is Jon Soltz, founder and chairman of VoteVets.org.
The Trayvon Martin case has gripped the nation, and forced the country to re-examine our gun laws. But the horrible affair has struck me in another way, because of my two tours in Iraq. One fact stands out in my mind: The “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida, which may let George Zimmerman off the hook for the killing of Martin, gives more leeway to shooters than our own military gives to soldiers in war.
VoteVets.org has more than 105,000 members who take a wide array of views on gun control and the 2nd Amendment, but the Trayvon Martin case is less about the right to bear arms than it is the “use of force.” It’s impossible to ignore the legal protection George Zimmerman enjoys in suburban Florida vs. the Rules of Engagement that outline when one of our troops can shoot while in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. The U.S. military issues Rules of Engagement (ROE) for every conflict to guide servicemembers’ ability to protect themselves from deadly threats while responding only with the necessary and proportionate level of force in a dangerous situation. The Rules of Engagement for Operation Iraqi Freedom laid out a clear set of steps that U.S. forces must take, up to and including deadly force if necessary, when responding to a threat or hostile act. A key component of the ROE used during the height of violence in Iraq in 2007 was the requirement to use “Graduated Force” when time and circumstances permit. Section 3.G.(1) states that if an individual “commit[s] a hostile act or demonstrat[es] hostile intent” — meaning he or she attacks U.S. or designated allied forces, nationals, or property, or threatens the imminent use of force against any of them — U.S. Force “may use force, up to and including deadly force, to eliminate the threat.” However, the rule also explicitly instructs forces, “when time and circumstances permit,” to use the following “graduated measures of force” when responding to hostile act or hostile intent:
3.G.(1)(A) (U) Shout verbal warnings to halt; 3.G.(1)(B) (U) Show your weapon and demonstrate intent to use it; 3.G.(1)(C) (U) Physically restrain, block access, or detain; 3.G.(1)(D) (U) Fire a warning shot (if authorized); 3.G.(1)(E) (U) Shoot to eliminate the threat.
This rule laid out a code of conduct that troops in Iraq adopted and employed in high-risk hostile situations. We were trained to respond to a threat by quickly assessing its level and urgency and, where time and circumstances permit, to “Shout — Show — Shove — Shoot.” As the shorthand makes clear, we approached threats with a clear set of steps to take before firing a weapon. The bottom line goal was always to minimize unnecessary deaths. These rules are enforced: using deadly force after failing to follow this procedure leads you open to charges of manslaughter and a court-martial. In fact, Richard Allen Smith, the vice chairman of VoteVets.org, recently told me a story he had heard during his time in Afghanistan, which illustrates this point.
The Scout Platoon leader for Richard’s Battalion was in a situation in 2007 where they detained someone, but he managed to get out of their truck and flee. While he was running away, the Platoon Leader fired at him and caught him in the thigh. They called for a medevac, but he bled out before the bird could get there. Under military law and rules of engagement, the Platoon Leader was clearly in the wrong: he pursued an unarmed guy who wasn’t posing a threat to U.S. Forces and shot him to death. He was charged (although he was never tried because he was injured a few days later when his truck was hit by an IED and he was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial). Of course, comparing the Trayvon Martin case to a war situation is neither fair nor clean, and we still don’t know all of the facts surrounding Trayvon’s death. But insofar as what I’ve read about the case, it sounds to me that if Trayvon had been an Iraqi soldier, and George Zimmerman had been a U.S. Soldier, there would have been an immediate investigation, and most likely a manslaughter charge, and victim’s family financially compensated for wrongful death. But Zimmerman is a civilian in Florida where, as the country now knows, a shooter is often immune from criminal prosecution and civil liability if he believed he had been threatened with deadly force. One of the striking components of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law — or, more appropriately, “Shoot First” law — is that it eliminated the “duty to retreat” embedded in centuries of common law about self-defense. Traditionally, a person had the duty to retreat from dangerous situations if they could, and the use of deadly force was justifiable self-defense only if a person could not have otherwise safely gotten away. In this way, the common law shared the underlying values of the Rules of Engagement: it is always preferable to de-escalate potentially violent situations before someone is killed. Florida’s “Shoot First” law — and the 24 other states that passed similar laws since 2005 — abandons that core de-escalation principle and allows an individual not only to “shoot first,” but to shoot faster than a member of the U.S. military would in a war zone. If a soldier or marine faces an imminent threat, he or she must take the procedural steps of employing Graduated Force, and if they don’t, they may be criminally liable. By eliminating both the duty to retreat and by providing blanket immunity for a shooter who claims he felt reasonably threatened, Florida’s “Shoot First” law seems to me to be exponentially more lax than the law that guides our troops in a war. In a war zone, troops are surrounded by potential threats, and it’s easy to misread a situation or jump to conclusions. But the military doesn’t let one of our troops just say, “I thought someone was threatening,” as an excuse for shooting someone to death outside of a firefight. The presumption remains that, if time and circumstances allowed, they should have taken preliminary steps to avoid a deadly confrontation. A deadly shooting still calls for an investigation, and if the evidence suggests that the shooter did not employ Graduated Force and that a reasonable person would not have resulted to deadly force, the shooter will be taken to a court martial. Even the presence of a weapon in many cases since AK47s are readily available isn’t enough alone to justify deadly force without the intent to use the weapon with hostile intent. Even in a war zone, Americans operate according to rules that seek to minimize deadly violence, and Americans who seem to deviate from those rules are subject to fact-finding and accountability in our military justice system. Our troops are trained on the escalation of force but our contractors weren’t validated by our military training, causing huge legal issues for our country with the Iraqi government. I was shocked to learn what goes for the military and half the states in America is no longer the case in Florida and the two dozen other states with new “Shoot First” laws. Zimmerman has so far avoided arrest by simply claiming that he felt threatened by Trayvon, regardless of whether that was an objectively reasonable response to the situation or if he took steps to avoid a deadly confrontation. As an Iraq veteran watching this national story unfold, I am finding it hard not to conclude that Florida’s law gives people much more leeway to shoot someone than our own military gives to our troops in war. That is something worth thinking about as this case moves forward.